The big fuss over Iowa State University President Steven Leath's use of ISU-owned airplanes should indeed raise concern - not about planes, really, but about what the role of our higher education leaders is becoming.
Leath has been left trying to defend himself repeatedly in recent weeks over the airplane fiasco, which one would suspect leaves little time for leadership of an academic institution.
Information has slowly leaked about about Leath's use of the university's planes for a mixture of personal and business purposes. A licensed pilot, he has flown the smaller Cirrus aircraft multiple times to travel back and forth to his cabin in North Carolina. He says that should be considered work travel, because the cabin can be used to invite potential donors to a getaway, and because he does things like answer phone calls and emails while he's kicking back in the mountains. In one hard landing at an Illinois airport, he did $12 grand in damage to the plane over the Fourth of July holiday, plus over $1,000 to store the plane at the airport until repairs were made. After the incident was made public, he repaid ISU for the repairs. While he was on vacation at the time, the specific trip included a business component, he says, because he was meeting with a "critically important" potential donor.
The university's larger plane, with two ISU pilots, is also used to attend to wealthy people who might give the school some cash, though in one case, Leath used it to pick up relatives during a fuel stop and take them to a basketball tournament in New York. According to the university, Leath has taken the Beechcraft King Air aircraft all over the country, from Palm Springs to San Antonio to St. Paul, most often for "donor relations."
The latest headline is the discovery that Leath's personal flight instructor was hired as ISU's interim CIO shortly after giving Leath lessons - which was done without a formal job search by the university.
State law makes it a crime to use state property for personal use or gain. You could argue whether that applies here, until the cows come home. Leath may not have violated law or college policy, but the situation certainly isn't making ISU or its president look good. For his part, Leath says he regrets "all of this" and that he won't fly any taxpayer-owned planes again.
"The fact that there has been all kinds of articles written about this makes me sad," he told the Iowa State Daily. That makes you wonder if he actually regrets his actions, or just that they have come to public light.
However, none of this is what we should really be concerned about. The university has planes for its president to travel, hopefully cheaper than commercial flights, and no doubt donors are the chief motivation. Leath used them. Big deal.
All the uproar is missing the point entirely.
We should be more concerned about why presidents of our state's colleges are spending their time flying around the country, jet-setting and schmoozing with rich fat cats to beg for money to keep their universities going.
The fact that a public, taxpayer-supported university is spending money on airplanes instead of professors and classrooms, should be reason for pause.
Are we turning our universities into charity cases, underfunding them to the point where our chosen higher-education leaders are being turned into full-time fundraisers? What kind of deals are being made in exchange for these "critically important" donations being negotiated?
Shouldn't we want college presidents on campus, actively shaping education, hearing from students and parents, and thinking far-reaching thoughts about the evolution of the collegiate experience at a pivotal junction for our nation - not traveling in a dozen states, none of which in this case are Iowa?
Leath is an academian, with history of campus leadership and a career in scientific research behind him, which is not without value. That's not the case everywhere.
Each time a university presidency seat comes open of late, it seems like there is a raging controversy about whether an academian, or a businessperson, should be hired. In Iowa, and at schools around the country, the latter seem to be winning out of late, despite protests from students and faculty.
Bruce Herald was hired in 2015 at president of the University of Iowa. Without ever having held a full-time job in the academic field, he was chosen over finalists including a sitting college president and two university provosts. That doesn't mean he can't do a great job, it just goes to show what is being valued most in a candidate.
It seems money is job one. And that makes donors job two, and sports promotion perhaps job three.
Is it any wonder the coaches get paid more than educators, and college presidents hit the friendly skies to donorville?
Why are we complaining about use of planes, when we expect a college president to be a traveling fundraiser.
Forget the nonsense, and start asking some real questions about quality of education.